The collision sisters

If you blink, you’ll miss Berkeley filmmaker Antero Alli’s compelling Hysteria, which will screen Saturday at MatrixArts Space. Don’t.

Filmmaker Antero Alli

Filmmaker Antero Alli

Antero Alli didn’t set out to make a topical movie about 9/11, or terrorism, or anything along those lines.

Last August, when the Berkeley filmmaker began working on a short piece about a boxer, he and actor/co-writer Jakob Bokulich figured they would be filming a 15- or 10-minute portrait of the kind of person who lives at the gym. “It was to be about a boxer who was battling his internal demons in the ring,” Alli explains, “using boxing as a way of exorcising his internal demons. We were toying with that notion … ”

Then the events of 9/11 happened.

“And that notion was rendered, in our minds, frivolous,” Alli continues. “We didn’t know what to do, but we knew we couldn’t follow that direction anymore.”

They agreed to take a break. As Alli processed not only the events, but what he perceived was happening to the space between people’s ears as a result, he came up with not only a novel way to continue—and complicate—the boxer’s story, but also address the torrent of information mixed with propaganda that flowed in the wake of 9/11.

“It was so blatant, especially in the few weeks following the attacks, that I felt compelled to contribute some kind of reversal,” Alli says.

The setup for Hysteria, the 83-minute videofilm that Alli came up with, is simple. Peri, an Iranian-American woman played by Anastasia Vega, returns to the East Bay from New York, where she’s been living the party life in the clubs. She was 10 blocks away when the planes slammed into the World Trade Center. According to her, everyone started copulating like rabbits in the attack’s traumatic aftermath. When Peri’s sex partner abruptly declares himself “gay,” she moves back across the country and in with her sister, Marian (Atosa Babaoff), who’s as Americanized as Peri, but still has one foot in the old world of their parents.

Atosa Babaoff, the emotional anchor of Hysteria

Across the hall, a reclusive Croatian man, Ikar (played by Bokulich, who wrote the film’s monologue sequences) moves in. Peri immediately develops somewhat of an obsession with Ikar, and we learn that he is a boxer who has more than a passing interest in the Virgin Mary, and that he is named after Icarus—the mythic figure who was trapped in a labyrinth with his father Daedalus, who made them wings of wax and feathers to escape.

Ikar is the first character introduced in the film, in the black-and-white sequence that opens it. In a flashback to Ikar as a soldier in the war following the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, he takes refuge in a church, where gypsies give him some tea containing datura, also known as jimson weed, a powerful natural hallucinogen. Ikar sees the Virgin Mary for the second time; the first time he saw Her, he was a child in the Bosnia-Herzegovina village of Medjugorje, then in Yugoslavia, in 1981, in a now-celebrated group of children to whom She appeared. This time, the Virgin has some instructions for Ikar.

We see Ikar boxing at the gym and practicing his belief system in his tiny apartment, along with the times he navigates between the two, when Peri makes her awkward but quite direct advances toward him.

What follows can’t be revealed without robbing viewers of the element of surprise; suffice it to say that the three characters interact in interesting and surprising ways, and what follows may challenge a few commonly held assumptions.

Jakob Bokulich, who plays the visionary boxer.

The reason Hysteria comes off as well as it does is, partially, because Alli found three actors with the right chemistry to make his vision work. Although Vega and Babaoff seem fundamentally different from each other, the language and physical gestures they use to communicate seem believable, the kind of communication style that typically develops between siblings. It’s the kind of character development you don’t see a lot of filmmakers bothering with much these days. He found them, he says, by issuing a casting call for “actresses of Middle-Eastern descent” in the Bay Area. He saw 50 actresses; Vega and Babaoff had undeniable chemistry. What luck.

Bokulich, on the other hand, is more restrained, but his self-effacing humor should be eerily familiar to any Sacramentan who has spent the past few years observing the antics of Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic.

But it isn’t just good performances that carry a film, especially an indie made on a shoestring budget such as this. The way Alli shot Hysteria, and Chris Odell edited it, the scenes are propelled forward from one into another with a kinetic energy that keeps the film from sinking into a quagmire of entropy, that also flows nicely—without looking like it was jumpcut by some old-school MTV fan who likes to wash down his Ritalin with Mountain Dew before working.

That was one of Alli’s objectives, anyway. Another of his intentions was to bring the camera in close. “I had not made a movie before where there was so much attention on close-ups,” he says. “And I knew that something like Hysteria, in the story—that I had to go up close. I couldn’t exactly explain it, but I knew that close-ups were a big part of the story.”

The camera does venture in, tight; often, the face it is studying is moving in and out of the frame, and the jerky quality of a hand-held digital camera further adds to help ratchet up the tension.

Another technical device Alli used was a digital colorization process; before Hysteria, he usually worked with black and white. “I just wanted to experiment with a certain colorization, to contribute to the tone of the kinetic energy,” he says, adding that he was trying to match the color spectrum with the emotional tone of hysteria.

The film was shot in February of this year.

Of course, all the technical facility may not necessarily result in a good picture. In this case, it has, or at least according to the Web site Film Threat, which gave it a five-star review.

Anastasia Vega, a luminous presence in Antero Alli’s new videofilm, <i>Hysteria</i>.

Alli was born in Finland in 1952, grew up first in Toronto, then Los Angeles, where his mother, a self-taught photojournalist, interviewed film stars for European magazines. At 18, he migrated north to the Bay Area where he lived on the cheap, supporting himself by teaching piano and—don’t laugh—clowning at birthday parties while he wrote and directed original experimental plays. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 1982, got married, wrote books, got divorced, moved to Seattle six years later, published a poetry tabloid and, in 1992, began what evolved into the Nomad VideoFilm Festival (the current iteration of which will screen at the MatrixArts Space on Friday). In 1996 Alli moved to Berkeley with partner Sylvi Alli, who composed much of the original soundtrack for Hysteria; the two of them established Vertical Pool, the company that produced the film. Alli supports his filmmaking by working as a professional astrologer; it was via a long, esoteric and very interesting essay on a summer 1999 eclipse and the radioactive dangers posed to the Cassini Space Probe, which circulated on the Internet, that I became aware of him during a late-night Web-surfing session.

And then to find out that he makes films, or digital videos: Tragos (2000-01), about techno-pagans who practice their beliefs using virtual reality in a police state; Crux (1999), which focuses on eight ritualists; The Drivetime (1995), a “cyber-fi” feature produced and written with astrologer Rob Brezsny; The Oracle (1993), based on Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions; and Archaic Community (1992), in addition to a number of shorts and featurettes.

But don’t go looking for Alli’s films at the corner video store. He has specific ideas about what context his films should be enjoyed in, and it doesn’t involve your couch and refrigerator. You have to go to one of his exhibitions, like the one this Saturday night at MatrixArts Space.

“So far,” Alli writes in his vision statement, “my work is made for exhibition purpose only (big screen projection) and for several reasons. I believe in the asocial ritual of cinema: A group of strangers gathering in a large, cavernous space to witness visions through a window into another time, another place. In this space, we all undergo a kind of psychic journey together while remaining very much alone. And in this solitude, our perception shifts and turns, this way and that; sometimes altered and once in a blue moon, transformed.

“Certain films,” he adds, “can even change your life.”

He’s right, and Hysteria may very well be one of them. Don’t miss it.